The Black Gambler (黒い賭博師, Ko Nakahira, 1965)

Black Gambler posterNikkatsu’s “Mighty Guy” Akira Kobayashi occupied a very particular space in the studio’s collection of leading men. Where Yujiro Ishihara was known for his roguish cheek, Tetsuya Watari for his bruiser nobility, and Joe Shishido for his detached efficiency, Kobayashi’s chief selling point was his gentlemanly charm and unflappable decency. The “Gambler” series which ran to eight films in all cast him as a James Bond-esque wandering cardsharp with a well tailored suit and keen intellect capable of defeating even the most devious of opponents. The sixth in the series, simply titled The Black Gambler (黒い賭博師, Kuroi Tobakushi), finds Koji Himuro (Akira Kobayashi) returning to Tokyo and straight into the middle of international intrigue as he gets mixed up with a global gambling syndicate hellbent on bringing its particular brand of funny business to the Japanese capital.

Himuro, renowned for his skills at the gaming table, is called to an exclusive gambling party where he entertains the French Ambassador and ruins a cheating rival in the process. Inumaru (Asao Koike), humiliated by his defeat, sends his mistress Reiko (Manami Fuji) to spy on Himuro and figure out all his secrets so they can get their revenge. However, Himuro gets himself mixed up in a bigger crisis when he comes to the rescue of a foreign woman in a park running away from a scary looking gangster. The woman, Nina, claims to be an air stewardess flown in from Hong Kong who has fallen foul of a Chinese gangster named Yang. Yang has apparently tricked her into amassing vast debts and thereafter attempted to recoup his investment in other ways. Himuro is a noble sort of guy and so decides to pay off Nina’s debt by defeating Yang in a game of cards, but Yang is a different kind of opponent than he’s hitherto faced and Himuro finds himself floundering unable to figure out Yang’s particular cheat.

Nikkatsu’s action line was famous for its “borderless” approach, making an international milieu one of its many selling points. This is not to say its vision of global Japan was altogether positive – in fact the reverse was often true. Once again, the Chinese have been designated the criminal element of choice with Yang painted as a villainous cheater complete with a horrible Fu Manchu beard and delirious cackle, sure that his unique method for ensuring victory cannot be beaten. Meanwhile, Himuro’s first engagement dropped him straight into a world of international diplomacy and it comes as no surprise to learn that Yang’s activities are merely a facet of a wider conspiracy which turns out to be run by a Jewish gambler who apparently used his ill gotten gambling gains to finance the Nazis during the second world war. Perhaps it’s wise not to even start trying to unpack that one.

Himuro’s upscale world of high stakes games played in well appointed rooms by men wearing tuxedos and drinking martinis may be a world away from the dirty backstreet shenanigans of Nikkatsu’s other gambling adventures, but there is bite in its defiant bid for frivolity. When Himuro first rocks up at the French Ambassador’s residence, his assistant doesn’t really want to let him in. He is infuriated that with a war going on in Vietnam his boss is taking time out to play silly games of chance rather than getting on the with real business of diplomacy. Vietnam is referenced again in the ironic closing freeze frame in which Himuro covers his face with a newspaper bearing the headline “America bets on bombing North Vietnam” – politics itself is now a game played by men in smart suits trying to stave off the boredom of being alive by using the lives of real men and women as gambling chips with little more feeling for them than for the tiny scraps of plastic which stand in for meaningless little bits of paper in the centre of a table covered in green felt.

Women, it seems, are a more immediate casualty of a gambler’s vice. Reiko, sent to spy on Himuro but drawn to his cardsharp’s acumen, was herself gambled away by her father who lost her to Inumaru in a bet. She holds no affection for the man who won her, but feels bound to him all the same and has vowed to become a top gambler as an odd kind of revenge. Nina too suffers at the hands of gangsters and criminals, drawn to Himuro because of his heroic nobility and unable to escape the underground world of grifters and chancers without the help of a seasoned player.

Sticking to a house style, Nakahira finds little scope to express himself in another B-movie adventure for the sophisticated gambling man. Nevertheless, there’s enough Bond-inspired silliness to keep the franchise fans happy from Himuro’s ball bearing loaded car to the gaming intrigue and intricate cheats that define it. The Black Gambler is a fairly typical example of Nikkatsu’s regular programme picture with little to distinguish it but it does what it sets out to well enough and with crowd pleasing style.


Opening scene (no subtitles)

The Assignation (密会, Ko Nakahira, 1959)

Aside from the genre defining Crazed Fruit which kick-started the era of the “seishun eiga” and, in its own way, the Japanese New Wave, Ko Nakahira has remained under seen and under appreciated outside of Japan. Completed just three years after the youth fuelled frenzy of Crazed Fruit with its freewheeling playboys and their speedboat crises, The Assignation (密会, Mikkai) is a much more measured, mature meditation on social constraint, guilt and the slow drip feed of poisonous thought. Nakahira wastes none of his characteristic energy in the necessarily tight 76 minute runtime, but this is an exercise in high tension as a pair of illicit lovers are suddenly confronted with their crime after accidentally witnessing a murder.

Neglected at home by her studious professor husband, Kikuko (Yoko Katsuragi) has embarked on affair with one of his students, Ikuo (Seiji Miyaguchi). Canoodling at a deserted woodland spot, the pair muse on their impossible love prompting Ikuo to wonder how it would be if Kikuko’s husband simply died. Kikuko quickly puts a stop to Ikuo’s dark and desperate thought but the seed of death has already been sown in the relationship as they’re quickly spotlighted by a pair of unexpected car headlights. Hiding behind a nearby bush, Kikuko and Ikuo witness some kind of struggle inside a taxi before a young man drags and older one out of the car and takes off at a run.

Traumatised, Ikuo and Kikuko finish dressing and attempt to rejoin regular society by avoiding the unusual level of traffic in this remote spot which includes another truck and, as luck would have it, a policeman on a bike. Troubled, the pair bid each other goodbye with the suggestion that they’d better not see each other for a while but the tension continues to mount as Ikuo’s youthful desire to do his civic duty conflicts with Kikuko’s middle aged preoccupation with her reputation and the possible scandal that would occur should the police discover the whole story of their sordid love affair.

Nakahira begins with a careful panning of trees against the film’s bouncy jazz soundtrack neatly underlining the dread hanging somewhere overhead. Scandalous for 1959, the ongoing affair between the naive student and the melancholy housewife is already tinged with doom from the outset despite the relaxed quality of their post-coital coversation. Ikuo is pained, he wants a full life with Kikuko, but she dampens his youthful dreams by already thinking of the end. Adopting a maternal tone, she talks about his future – graduation, a successful career, a lovely young girl his own age who become will his wife. She even wonders if he’ll invite her to the wedding so she can meet the woman who will complete his life in a way she never can. Though she may say she wants to stay with him forever in the throws of passion, hers is a pragmatic love which is more need than desire. The archetypal middle-class housewife, Kikuko may have made this brief weekday evening transgression but throwing off the constraints of propriety is not a step she she envisages taking.

Already guilt ridden over her moral transgression, Kikuko views the incident in the woods as some kind of karmic revenge for her carnal sin. A very frank discussion with her forthright sister-in-law who quizzes her about the marriage’s lack of offspring reveals the depths of her despair and loneliness as her husband barely acknowledges her existence and there is almost nothing for her to do around the house. Taking cooking classes just to get out for a while, she runs into Ikuo whose story is an equally common one of a young man’s infatuation with the pretty yet sad younger wife of his professor.

If mutual loneliness brought them together, guilt and fear will later tear them apart as they face their shared “crime” from opposing sides. For Kikuko her illicit meetings with man much younger than herself are a shameful secret which must be concealed at all costs. Ikuo, however, is in love and sees nothing “wrong” in his courtship of the older woman even if he sympathises with her desire to avoid a scandal and does not want to cause her pain. What bothers him is a sense of justice and social responsibility. He saw the killer’s face – if he goes to the police, the victim’s wife and children might at least be able to gain some peace of mind knowing that the perpetrator is behind bars even if little else will change for them. Kikuko, by contrast, can think of nothing other than herself and is willing to sacrifice all to keep her reputation intact.

The threat of discovery is ever present as Nakahira litters the scene with clues and threats from the constant flagging of possible witnesses to an errant leaf resting on the pot which Kikuko has so calculatedly prepared to back up her cooking class alibi. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades as superimposition and montage segue into Kikuko’s flights of fancy from her memories of the beginning of the affair to a premonition of the newspaper furore which awaits her should Ikuo follow through with his intention of revealing all to the police. In the end, someone is always watching. Despite the youthful tone and jaunty jazz soundtrack, the morality police will tolerate no transgression. The wages of sin are death, but it’s fear driven by guilt and social constraint which is its executioner.


 

Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Ko Nakahira, 1964)

© 1964 Nikkatsu CorporationDespite being among the directors who helped to usher in what would later be called the Japanese New Wave, Ko Nakahira remains in relative obscurity with only his landmark movie of the Sun Tribe era, Crazed Fruit, widely seen abroad. Like the other directors of his generation Nakahira served his time in the studio system working on impersonal commercial projects but by 1964 which saw the release of another of his most well regarded films Only on Mondays, Nakahira had begun to give free reign to experimentation much to the studio boss’ chagrin. Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Suna no Ue no Shokubutsu-gun), adapted from the novel by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki, puts an absurd, surreal twist on the oft revisited salaryman midlife crisis as its conflicted hero muses on the legacy of his womanising father while indulging in a strange ménage à trois with two sisters, one of whom to he comes to believe he may also be related to.

After a brief prologue in which our hero, cosmetics salesman Ichiro Igi (Noboru Nakaya), imagines a scenario for a novel in which a dying husband becomes so jealous of the man that may succeed him in his wife’s life that he sets about plotting to make her the weapon of that very man’s destruction, Igi heads to his regular barber and longtime family friend where he takes the time to probe him about his late father’s womanising habits. Igi’s father died young at only 34 for years of age, three years younger than the age Igi is now. His father’s spitting image, Igi cannot help seeing him everywhere he goes and feels unable to evade his ongoing influence, almost as if he were possessed by his father’s (un)departed spirit.

The major preoccupation Igi has is that his wife (Yukiko Shimazaki) may have slept with his father before they were married while she was just a teenager. The barber tells him he’s pretty sure not, but Igi cannot let the idea go and repeatedly brings it up with his wife, creating discord in the family home. Meeting a precocious schoolgirl at the Marine Tower one evening, Igi finds himself taking her to a hotel and deflowering her even though she begins to resist him at the last minute. The girl, Akiko (Mieko Nishio), then makes a strange request of him – she wants Igi to seduce and “hurt” her older sister Kyoko (Kazuko Inano) whose sanctimonious attitude she can no longer stand. Igi does indeed visit the bar where Kyoko works as a hostess and embarks on an intense affair with her but Akiko’s pleas to “hurt” her sister are complicated by Kyoko’s masochistic tendencies and Igi’s descent into a kind of madness.

Beginning with the painting by Paul Klee which gives the film its name, Nakahira asks us to imagine what would happen if a large dash of red were suddenly to appear, disrupting the comforting harmony of Klee’s perfectly matched colours. The discomforting redness does dutifully appear as strangely shaped squares on the canvas but the symbolic value of the colour is felt throughout the black and white narrative from the dark stain of Akiko’s broken maidenhead to the affectation of her lipstick and constant references to red seas and suns.

Though Igi’s world may have seemed just as perfectly ordered as Klee’s painting from the outside, his constant preoccupations with his father become the disruptive influence which leads to all of the redness later leaking in. Haunted by his father as he is, seeing his face everywhere from train windows to the barber shop mirror, Igi’s attempt at a plot for a murder mystery takes on a strangely Oedipal quality as we begin to wonder if it’s his father rather than Igi himself who has assumed the role of the “protagonist”, leaving a time bomb for his wayward son, the inheritor of his woman, just as Igi laid out in his prologue. Bizarre reality or another symptom of Igi’s increasingly fractured mind, the plot seems likely to succeed at least in a sense as Igi declines into a dishevelled mess, prone to hallucinations and uncertain visions.

Nakahira gives us several of these as Igi panics and struggles with a key only to open a door into bright white light and nothingness or another in which he and Kyoko dine in an empty restaurant which is suddenly filled with the noisy chatter of other diners. Strange touches such as the German beerhall with a Spanish guitarist, or the odd peepshow in which Igi and his two friends take on the appearance of demons or impassive Buddhist statues thanks to the light reflected into their eyes, add to the unbalanced atmosphere as do the frequent closeups of lips and hands, and the symbolic value of seeds never meant to be planted which nevertheless flower at an unintended moment. Shooting in black and white, Nakahira begins with a colour sequence featuring the abstract artwork with occasional flashes of colour as well as voice over and occasional intertitle-style captions adding to the absurdist atmosphere.

A surreal and complex psychological exploration of sex, power, obsession, identity, and legacy Flora on the Sand finds Nakahira flexing his experimental mussels for a drama rife with ambiguity and strangeness. Sadly this brand of innovation was not entirely welcome at Nikkatsu head offices and so he found himself left out in the cold eventually ending up in Hong Kong making action movies for Shaw Brothers. Despite some later success at international festivals, Nakahira’s work remains sadly neglected but the unusual degree of sophistication and almost playful atmosphere seen in Flora on the Sand make him worthy of attention as more than just an almost was of the rising New Wave.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Danger Pays (危いことなら銭になる, Ko Nakahira, 1962)

Danger PaysWhere there’s danger, there’s money! Or, maybe just danger, who knows but whatever it is, it certainly doesn’t lack for excitement. Ko Nakahira is best known for his first feature, Crazed Fruit, the youthful romantic drama ending in speed boat murder which ushered in the Sun Tribe era. Though he later tried to make a return to more artistic efforts, it’s Nakahira’s freewheeling Nikkatsu crime movies that have continued to capture the hearts of audience members. Danger Pays (AKA Danger Paws, 危いことなら銭になる, Yabai Koto Nara Zeni ni Naru) is among the best of them with its cartoon-like, absurd crime caper world filled with bumbling crooks and ridiculous setups.

The central plot gets going when a truck carrying watermarked paper destined for the mint is hijacked with force by armed thugs. They need a master forger though so they set out to recruit one of the best counterfeiters currently working on his way back from a business trip to Hong Kong. However, three petty crooks have also gotten wind of the scam and are trying to head off their rivals by kidnapping the old grandpa first.

The three guys are “Glass Hearted Joe” – a purple suited dandy with an aversion to the sound of scraping glass, Slide Rule Tetsu who walks with a cane and is a whizz with the abacus, and Dump-Truck Ken who’s a geeky sort of guy who also owns a dumper truck. Sakamoto, the forger, eludes their grasp when the better equipped professionals turn up, but none of them is willing to give up on the prize. A little later, Joe teams up with a female ally – Tomoko, who is keen martial artist and smarter than the other three put together. Eventually the four end up becoming an accidental team though it remains to be seen if they can really turn this increasingly desperate situation to their advantage.

Danger Pays is in no way “serious” though this is far from a criticism. Armed with a killer script filled with amazing one liners which are performed with excellent comic timing by the A-list cast, Danger Pays is the kind of effortlessly cool, often hilarious crime caper which is near impossible to pull-off but absolutely sublime when it works – which Danger Pays most definitely does. Though there is a large amount of death and bloodiness in the final third, the atmosphere remains cartoonish as our intrepid team of four simply step over the bodies to go claim their prize with only one of them left feeling a little queasy.

Nakahira maintains the high octane, almost breathless pace right through to the end. The finale kicks in with our heroes trying to escape from a locked room which is about to be filled with gas only to be trapped like rats in an elevator shaft where they engage in an improbable shootout whilst bodies rain down on them from above bathed in the red emergency light of the escape vaults. This is a hardboiled world but one cycled through cigar munching wise guys and tommy guns, it’s all fun and games until you’re trapped in a lift knee deep in corpses while blood drips from a couple more dead guys on the ceiling.

Ridiculous slapstick humour and broad comedy are the cornerstones of Danger Pays though it also makes its central crime conceit work on its own only to overturn it with a final revelation even as the credits roll. Excellently played by its four leads, this comic tale of “victimless crime” in the improbably colourful underworld of ‘60s Tokyo is one which is filled with absurd humour, cartoon stunts, and ridiculous characters but proves absolutely irresistible! If only modern day crime capers were this much fun.


Danger Pays is the second of three films included in the second volume of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys box set.